The eventing world has been shocked to learn that the winning horse at Burghley Horse Trials last month has failed a routine doping test. Clifton Promise, ridden by the latest New Zealand phenomenon, Jock Paget, tested positive for Reserpine, a substance banned by equestrian sport’s governing body, the FEI.

Reserpine is used to treat high blood pressure in humans and has a long-term sedative effect. The substance was also found in another horse, Clifton Pinot, ridden into 14th place by Paget’s trainer and mentor, Kevin McNab, who competes for Australia.

Both riders have been temporarily suspended pending the outcome of a second round of tests. If these are positive as well, the riders could receive lengthy bans from competing; they could even be barred from the Olympics. Paget, who won Badminton in May, would also be prevented from contesting the much-hyped US$350,000 Rolex Grand Slam of major three-day events at Kentucky in April.

Surrey-based Paget has been a refreshing new face in eventing. A naturally talented rider, he has debunked many myths about eventing being a sport for the privileged-10 years ago, he was working as a brickie in Sydney and had never jumped a fence.

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His compatriot Andrew Nicholson, who stands to benefit from Paget’s disqualification because he was second and third at Burghley, emphasised on New Zealand radio that Paget was ‘a totally genuine bloke’, but he pointed out that riders need to be vigilant about the components of feed supplements given to horses because the rules on banned substances are so stringent.

Dope-testing of horses is routine procedure at major events but transgressions are rare; it’s unprecedented for a winner at this level to fail a test. Paget is said to be ‘shocked’ and the horse’s owner, Frances Stead, said that Clifton Promise has been tested ‘about 20 times’ before with no problems.

The timing is terrible for equestrian sport as it follows disclosures earlier this year about doping of racehorses by one of Sheikh Mohammed’s trainers and comes in the middle of widespread media condemnation of practices in endurance riding. The FEI, whose clean-sport mandate has proved otherwise successful, is currently sourcing new headline sponsors for eventing and Britain has put in a bid to host the 2018 World Equestrian Games.

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